About The Author
Helen Sedgwick was a research scientist working in the field of biophysics before writing her debut novel, The Comet Seekers. She has an MLitt in Creative Writing from Glasgow University and a PhD in Physics from Edinburgh University, and has received a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. Having grown up in London, she now lives in the Scottish Highlands.
The Growing Season is her second novel and imagines a world in which anyone can have a baby thanks to FullLife's externally worn pouch. Eva herself was born this way but has devoted her life to campaigning against FullLife's biotech baby pouches despite the popular view that they have helped transform society for the better. But then she and her estranged boyfriend begin to suspect that something sinister and potentially catastrophic is happening with the product and they are thrown back together in their search for the truth. It's impossible to read this multi-layered book without engaging with its fascinating and provocative central premise.
Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler chatted to Helen about how the basic technologies needed to create an external womb already exist, how scientific development is as much a part of natural life as evolution and why it's incorrect to imagine the risk from something new is worse than the risk from something familiar.
Author photo © Michael Gallacher
Questions & Answers
The world-building is superb, the way you manage to insert the pouch concept into an otherwise wholly familiar world makes the whole thing scarily plausible. Was this the main reason for keeping everything else as recognisable as possible?
I wanted to show that this technology really is getting close and that it could very well be here within our lifetimes. It’s not a futuristic kind of society that will have to deal with the impact of the pouch, it is our own society – complete with all the problems and issues that we have today. I would love for people reading the book to feel that it’s their own world that the pouch has arrived in, and that it’s their lives and relationships that could be changed by it.
Does the idea of the pouch have any basis in scientific reality?
The pouch is essentially a combination of two technologies that we have today and that are improving rapidly. Firstly, new types of fluid-filled incubators are being developed for highly premature babies. Scientists from Philadelphia recently published results showing this ‘biobag’ being successfully used for premature lambs, and they’ve suggested the technology could be ready for human trials within a few years. Although the biobag could not replace the entire term of pregnancy, it could save the lives of babies born up to 22 weeks premature. Secondly, IVF and associated techniques are used to maintain embryos outside the human body, and a team from Cambridge were recently able to keep embryos alive and healthy up to the current legal limit of two weeks. As the research progresses and our ethics adapt, embryos will be able to grow for longer outside the body. Sooner or later, the timescales of these two technologies will meet in the middle and we will have created a complete external womb.
How did you set about getting the science to be plausible?
Before I started writing novels I was a scientist and I worked for several years in bioengineering research. I was developing lab-on-a-chip technologies to study living cancer cells and my work involved growing cells in an artificial environment. So my background was very helpful, and I think when you work in a scientific field you develop an instinct for what might be possible within that field in the future. Biotechnology doesn’t succeed by ignoring biology and trying to create something entirely new; it works best by mimicking a biological reality and providing biomolecules with a familiar environment in which they can thrive. So I imagined the pouch reproducing the shape and conditions of a womb as closely as possible, which has the combined benefit of being both easy to visualize and scientifically valid. It’s believable because it is so close to the truth.
As humans, is the problem that we have become so enamoured with the possibilities of science that we can’t or won’t accept that there are some aspects of human nature that can’t be changed?
I think I’d turn that on its head and suggest that we are so enamoured with ourselves that we don’t like to acknowledge the need for our nature to progress. For me, science is a part of nature and scientific development is as much a part of natural life as evolution (and evolution tells us that we can and have changed, our survival depends on it). But the way we structure our societies and treat one another is also a part of our nature. If we are to progress and continue to survive as a species then our behaviour needs to develop hand in hand with our scientific understanding.
Do you agree with Freida that progress comes about through technology rather than protest and legislation? Or are there perhaps two different types of ‘progress’ at issue here?
I don’t think I entirely agree with any of the characters in the book! One of the advantages of having different point of view characters is that I could give them strong opinions and then challenge them. I think protest and legislation are a vital part of democracy and of our progress as a society, and we should never rely on technology alone to make the world a better place – it’s what we do with the technology that matters. But I also think that democracy is slow (it must be, part of what makes it strong is that it’s not about rapid revolution but gradual change) and that sometimes it feels like every time we take a step forwards it is followed by a large step back. Technology has the power to revolutionise society in a very short time and I think that some of the world’s largest problems will only be solved through science. But science exists within society, not apart from it, so legislation and infrastructure should be there to make sure technological advances are used for the right reasons.
As Daphne points out, the pouch has undeniable benefits for the non-traditional family, such as gay couples, as well as those with fertility problems and so on, but is it ever possible to safeguard the vulnerable, or is that risk the price we pay? The parallels with Digitas, in particular, though at the other end of life, really struck me while reading your book.
That is a very good question, and I’m not sure if anyone can fully answer it. I suppose I would start by looking at where we are now, and it seems to me that the vulnerable are already at risk – in many cases the vulnerable are already being abused. Are the risks from the pouch really greater than the risks people face today? I think it’s perhaps human nature to imagine the risk from something new is worse than the risk from something familiar, but that’s not really true. If you take the long view then scientific and medical progress has made the world a better and safer place. It’s also a question about how we really want to view humanity. Given a new tool, will we use it to help people or harm them? While there are undoubtedly human beings who sit on both sides of that divide I think that, on average, we would rather help one another. And it seems to me that we shouldn’t ignore a real opportunity to help people just because we are afraid of being harmed.
Do you feel that other areas of technology that have become a reality, such as the internet, for example, are potentially as damaging to our very DNA as the pouch might be?
All kinds of technologies can have an impact on the human body and the interface between humans and technology is developing all the time. Information technology, virtual reality, organ replacements, humans being brought closer to machines in a whole variety of ways could potentially have the capability to alter our DNA. We are still discovering exactly how our DNA works, how our genetic code is read, how it might be influenced by our environment and experiences, and even what it’s capable of – it’s far more complicated than we used to think and is a vibrant field of research. As for technologies that we have today, I think the Internet is changing the way we communicate, the way we learn, and the overall balance of our lives. I suspect that those kinds of changes can have a lasting and heritable impact on the way our bodies function.
Did your own position towards the concept of shared childbearing change during the course of writing the book?
My feelings about the pouch and childbearing in general changed quite a lot while I was writing the book. I spoke to lots of people about their different experiences and the research I did certainly opened my mind to all the ways there are of thinking about pregnancy, childbirth and potential technological alternatives. I’ve always believed that equality in parenting (like in everything) is vitally important and it seems to me that sharing as much as possible is the best way to create a well balanced family. When I started writing the book I thought the pouch would be a life-changing invention that would liberate women and finally bring about a true equality. I was ready to sign up! But I must admit that my feelings are more mixed now. There are no easy answers.
The book is packed with themes and ideas, not just about science and technology but also the meaning of family, nature vs nurture, what progress is, and what it is to work, but it also explores the complex relationships between Piotr and Eva, James and Avigail and Karl and Cris, amongst others. How did you set about planning and then managing all these different strands into such a richly satisfying whole?
I always knew it would be a book about multiple points of view and from early on I had several characters and relationships in mind, as well as a sense of how they felt about the pouch and how they would be impacted by it. I spent a long time thinking and talking to people about the book before I wrote a word of it, so during that time all the different themes and potential implications of the pouch were developing in my mind. But there was also an element of just following my instinct and some aspects of the plot only emerged as I wrote. I spent a long time editing the book as well – longer than I spent writing the first draft – and with each new edit I tried to bring in new facets to the story, to make the world as complete as possible while weaving the different elements together. But honestly that makes it sound far more structured than it really was! For me, writing is as much about feeling as it is about planning. I listen to my characters, I try to make them real, and I explore ideas that are fascinating to me.